Chapter 1

December 31, 2000


Emily rolled her eyes at her reflection in the mirror as her grandfather's voice bellowed below. For an old guy, he's still pretty loud, she thought as she chuckled to herself. She applied the finishing touches to her make-up and took a step back to admire the view. She didn't look so bad, she decided. Her shiny, brown hair framed her face in big, loose waves. The dark red lip color complimented her dress as the dress did its part to compliment her figure. The dress was strapless and had a slit which stopped at mid-thigh. The thin solid gold chain glimmered against her fair skin as the diamond pendant hung on to the chain. The diamond studs sparkled in her ears and she smiled at the effect they created. Her hand reached for her brush to dust a tiny bit more color onto her cheeks when she felt a pair of hands grab her from behind.

"Whoa!" she laughed as her three-year-old nephew held on for dear life.

"Michael!" came the worried voice from the hallway.

"AJ, he's in here!" Emily called. She pried Michael's hands from her legs and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw that they weren't sticky. She moved to sit on the stool at the foot of her bed and like the lovestruck nephew he was, he followed her. He listened with a well-trained solemn expression on his face as the lecture began. "You know you're not supposed to run off, right?"

"Yes, Auntie," he said with a nod.

"So, you won't do it again?" Emily said, forcing herself to remain stern even though the only thing she really wanted to do was laugh.

"No, Auntie."

"Good boy!" Emily said, unable to resist the urge to tickle him.

"You know you're not supposed to-"

"He knows, AJ," Emily said with a smile for her older brother as she cut him off in mid-sentence. "We were just talking about it. Weren't we, Mikey?"

Michael laughed in reply and then ran to his father. AJ swung the toddler into the air and then lovingly held him to his chest. AJ released a wolf-like whistle as Emily stood and moved to stand before her mirror again. "Looking good, Em."

"Thanks," she said, as she smiled at him in the mirror. He was right. She did look good and she knew it. Eat your heart out Port Charles. I'm coming of age this year, she thought, and I'm taking prisoners.

AJ sat on the stool which Emily had vacated. He saw the grin creep across her face and he became filled with brotherly concern. He wanted to ask her what caused it, but he wouldn't pry. She was at an age where she was allowed to have a secret or two. Even at his ripe age of twenty-nine, he still maintained a few secrets of his own.

"Why aren't you dressed, yet?" Emily asked, turning to face AJ. She held her red clutch purse in her hands and after dropping her lipstick inside, she closed the latch. Her eyes took in AJ's faded blue jeans and well-worn PCU navy blue sweatshirt. He looked good for a party, but not *the* New Year's Party which *everyone* was going to. He'd better shake a leg, she thought.

"I'm almost ready," he said as he stood up. He held out his hand to Michael who happily took it.

"You don't look it. Aren't you going with us?" she asked, as she grabbed her matching red wrap from her bed.

"No, I'm going a little bit later," he said. As a frown creased her brow, he added, "Don't worry. I'll be there. I want to hang out with Mikey a little bit before I ring in the new year. I have no intentions of missing your grand debut, young lady. You can count on me. I'll be there."

"You'd better be!" Emily said with a warning look in her eyes. She shook her finger at AJ and he laughed. Michael joined in as father and son left her.

Emily took one more look at herself in the mirror. She looked good. She'd be good. She knew it and believed it. Now, all she had to do was prove it.




Nikolas held himself erect as his gaze watched the ebb and flow of the lake from the bay window in Wyndemere's den. Two years away at Harvard and still nothing had really changed, he thought. Well, maybe a few things had changed, he laughed softly as he corrected himself.

He moved away from the window to walk back into the room. His father, Stefan... Even now the knowledge caused him to pause. He shook his head as he continued with his thought. The pain the truth of his paternity had caused had been dealt with years ago. He would not go through it again.

Nikolas' eyes wandered over the room as a faint smile drifted across his face. Stefan had remarried a year ago and the changes in Wyndemere were astounding. Gone was the dark, forbidding decor which depressed the happiest souls. The darkness had been replaced with light. White walls, peach walls, and light blue walls brightened the gloomy mansion. The gothic furnishings had been replaced with more contemporary styles and through all the changes, Stefan never said a word. He was, as it were, a man in love. He didn't mind the changes as long as the woman he loved was happy. Ah, what a nice feeling it must be, Nikolas thought.

Feeling a sudden chill, he moved to stand before the fireplace. He rested one tuxedo pant-covered leg on the hearth as his hand rested on the mantle. He looked at the family portrait which hung above his head. Smiling back at him were him, Stefan and the two women in their lives, Stefan's wife and her daughter.

"Do you think they'll ever take that down?"

"We can hope, can't we?" Nikolas replied. He smiled as Dawn came towards him. Dressed in a floor-length black dress which clung to every curve, she was stunning. Every eye would be on her, Nikolas thought, but she'll be with me. The thought should have made him proud, but instead, he was left with a hollow feeling. He brushed it off and held out his hand to her. When their hands were joined, he led her to the center of the room.

"You look very handsome tonight," she said softly. He always looked handsome, she thought. He couldn't help himself. In the past, his looks always gave her heart a jolt, but now the electric current didn't flow through her as freely. He was handsome. Nothing would ever change that, but the effect on her wasn't the same. The knowledge scared her a little and she smiled brightly to push the thought back down. She would answer the questions which weighed on her mind later. Tonight, she was determined to enjoy the evening.

"This old thing?" he laughed softly.

"Well, now that you mentioned it..." she grinned back at him.

"I'm wounded," he said, clutching his heart.

"No, you're not," she said, shaking her head at his antics.

"You don't believe me??" he asked raising an eyebrow, causing her to laugh out loud.

"Ah, laughter. That's what we've been missing around here."

"Missing? You're so wrapped up in my mother that I'd doubt you remember either of us. I'm sure that's why you had the portrait commissioned to remind you," Dawn said with a playful frown. When she first met Stefan, she had been a little intimidated by him, but as they began to spend more time with each other, the feeling disappeared. Her stepfather held a special place in her heart as she did in his.

"And, who are you?" Stefan asked. The twinkling of his green eyes belied the seriousness of his voice. He smiled broadly as Dawn laughed at him.

Nikolas smiled as he watched his father and his girlfriend, first and stepsister, second, tease each other. She and her mother had brought happiness and love into their home and into their lives and he would forever be grateful. Grateful? He shook his head to clear the word from his mind. He knew it meant something, but he would question its significance later.

"Where's Carrie?" Nikolas asked with a small frown. A glance at his Rolex told him that in order to make the New Year's Party at an reasonable hour, they'd better leave now.

"I'm right here," she said as she came into the room. She made a beeline for her husband who's eyes told her that he loved the vision in white she created for him. She gave him a chaste kiss on his proffered cheek and then turned towards her daughter. "You and Nikolas make a stunning pair tonight. Don't you agree, Stef?"

"Completely. Would you believe they were laughing when I found them?" Stefan asked, tearing his gaze away from his wife to rest again on the young couple before them.

"Laughing? These two? Are you sure?" Carrie asked, her eyes dancing as she frowned at Nikolas and Dawn in disbelief.

The younger couple looked at each other and rolled their eyes at their parents' gentle teasing which masked the concern they felt. Dawn and Nikolas had each been given a good talking to by each parent as to the quietness of their nature on their Winter Break from their university schedule. Neither Dawn nor Nikolas had broken down to the persistent interrogation. Actually, why would they break down when neither of them were really sure of what was happening, or better still, not happening between them?

"Isn't it time to go?" Dawn asked, changing the subject.

"I believe so," Nikolas replied. He left her side to take her wrap from Mrs. Landsbury who always mysteriously knew the right moment to enter the room. Nikolas stood behind Dawn and carefully placed the wrap around her shoulders. Feeling two pairs of inquisitive eyes bore into his back, he allowed one hand to linger on her back as the other tilted her face towards his. Gently, he brushed his lips against hers. As the kissed ended, he was too lost in his own confusing emotions to notice that his sigh of relief matched Dawn's.

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